A divided Uvalde hasn’t had time to heal, speakers say

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UVALDE — As the national spotlight returned to Uvalde one year after a gunman killed 19 children and two adults at Robb Elementary School, the city of 16,000 residents remains profoundly divided.

Some civic leaders have said that, however difficult, the Uvalde community must move forward and not allow itself to be solely defined by the tragedy of May 24, 2022, the deadliest school shooting in Texas history.

For Kimberly Mata-Rubio, whose daughter Lexi, 10, was killed, the idea of turning the page is disrespectful and unimaginable, given the many unanswered questions and an ongoing investigation into the killings.

“There’s just a part of the community that’s just ready to move on, like this whole situation was inconvenient for them,” Mata-Rubio said at a Texas Tribune event Saturday at Southwest Texas Junior College, a community college that serves students from Uvalde and the vast area around it.

“We don’t want Uvalde to just be remembered for this tragedy. We just want to honor our children and those two teachers; they should always be remembered.”

The theme of the event was resilience, recovery and healing. Mental health experts, faith leaders and community advocates discussed loss, grief and the path forward for Uvalde and other communities that have suffered from the nation’s epidemic of gun violence. But a lack of transparency and accountability, and the absence of any substantial new gun legislation, has made moving on next to impossible, they said.

Joining Mata-Rubio on stage at the college’s Tate Auditorium was Veronica Mata, whose 10-year-old daughter Tess also died in the shooting. Mata said that “closure” is impossible for the families of the deceased and that the Uvalde community should acknowledge that reality. Adding insult to injury, she said, some developers have expressed doubts about the property value of buildings that are now adorned with painted murals of victims. The murals were painted by volunteer artists; it is not clear whether they were intended to be permanent.

“How can you say that you are united in a community when you’re trying to tear down our babies’ pictures?” Mata asked.

This panel of mental health practitioners discussed the experiences of Uvaldeans, how they’ve processed their grief and how to strengthen local community mental health services.

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About an hour west of San Antonio, Uvalde has long had a dearth of medical specialists, including pediatricians and psychiatrists. Grief counselors, therapists and other caregivers descended on the city in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, but in many cases, traumatized residents were not ready to make use of those services. Mata-Rubio said she did not feel she was ready to see a counselor, saying she did not need an expert to tell her how “broken” she feels.

Citing the experiences of other communities that have experienced mass shootings, speakers at the Tribune event said that nobody should expect a universal path to healing. That is particularly the case among children, who need space and time to process and express their feelings.

Marian Sokol, the CEO of the Children’s Bereavement Center, a San Antonio-based nonprofit, has been part of a continuous effort to provide therapeutic support to children in Uvalde since the shooting. The organization’s new bereavement center in Uvalde offers individual counseling, play therapy and expressive art sessions that help survivors of the shooting, and other children from the community, deal with their complex emotions following the tragedy. Sokol and her fellow panelists added that while children are resilient and might seem to be doing fine, that doesn’t mean they have fully recovered.

“A trigger is not the same for everyone” said Jaclyn Gonzales, a licensed professional counselor in Uvalde. “It can be very complex.”

Gonzales added that kids might want to isolate themselves and that parents’ instincts are to give them space. But they should be connected to therapists they trust and with whom they feel heard.

“What a parent can do for a child is just be real with them,” Gonzales added, saying that if you are honest about your own struggles, then they can feel less alone.

Faith leaders and community advocates at Saturday’s event reiterated the importance of understanding that the journey to healing isn’t the same for everyone and can’t fit into a specific timeline.

“People are complex, and so is healing,” said Aide Escamilla, a community advocate in Uvalde. “Healing for those who are impacted by the loss of the tragedy on May 24, … that kind of healing is going to take generations to come.”

Parents of two Uvalde school shooting victims spoke about their journeys since May 24, 2022.

Having trouble viewing? Watch this video on texastribune.org.

The Rev. Michael K. Marsh, rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Uvalde since 2005, said that justice is essential to the healing process, citing not only the lack of accountability around the mass shooting, but also the decades of inequities and disparities that have existed in Uvalde. He added, optimistically, that hope comes from darkness.

“In the midst of darkness, when you can’t see the way forward, when it feels like everything hurts, and everything has fallen apart, hope is real when you get out of bed that morning,” Marsh said. “Hope is real when you take the first step and you didn’t think you could. Hope is real when you walk out of the house and you didn’t want to.”

Sister Dolores Aviles, a Roman Catholic nun from the St. Henry De Osso Family Project in Uvalde, said that on a community level, being able to listen to others and being vulnerable were key to the process of healing.

“When you know that you have been listened to, not judged, … you can cry, you can be angry, and you’re OK in the presence of that person, and you feel loved. Once that happens, then it’s almost like that broken vessel that you are, starts all of a sudden coming together. It starts becoming whole again.”

For Mata-Rubio and Mata, the friendships among parents forged from tragedy have been vital in finding a space where their grief is understood, shared — and not judged.

“It’s a lifeline, a judgment-free zone,” Mata-Rubio said. “I tell them things I wouldn’t tell anyone else. When we’re together, it’s a little bit of a relief.”

In trying to create a supportive path forward for the community, Marsh said, “We need to be in touch with our common humanity.”

“We need each other,” Marsh said of the community needing to unite. “It’s gotta start somewhere. Starting with the hardest questions probably isn’t the best place.”

A panel of advocates and faith leaders in Uvalde looked ahead to the city’s future and its continuing journey of recovery.

Having trouble viewing? Watch this video on texastribune.org.

The Uvalde shooting has already been the subject of investigations by a law enforcement training center at Texas State University in San Marcos and by a special committee of the Texas House of Representatives, but many victims’ relatives are not satisfied. They have called on Uvalde’s city government and school district, which has its own police force that failed to take command of the response to the shooting, to commission a separate, independent investigation into what happened.

The district attorney in Uvalde, Christina Mitchell, has stated that the gunman was the only person behind the mass shooting, and he is dead. Nonetheless, she has kept open an active criminal investigation and blocked the release of investigative records compiled by law enforcement agencies. In December, the city, led by Mayor Don McLaughlin, sued Mitchell, demanding the release of the files. Mitchell has sought to get the suit dismissed and has noted that she has kept the families abreast of developments in the investigation.

Mata-Rubio suggested that the botched response to the shooting might have amounted to criminal negligence.

“I want charges filed,” Mata-Rubio said. I don’t know if I can speak to who without having the investigation in front of me. I’m hoping that our district attorney makes the right decision.”

Mata-Rubio and Mata also said they would continue to lobby for a federal ban on assault weapons — like one that was in place from 1994 to 2004 — and statewide legislation that would raise the minimum age at which someone can buy an assault-style rifle in Texas from 18 to 21. Legislation to “raise the age” has all but failed in this session, although two House Republicans bucked their party in voting for it.

“We’re never going to stop,” Mata-Rubio said. “I’m going to make sure that Lexi’s legacy is change.”

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